Warning: This article contains spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead.
Much has already been said about the slow start of AMC’s The Walking Dead’s companion series – Fear the Walking Dead – which aired last night. Other than the first four minutes and the last four minutes of the show’s pilot, slyly named “Pilot,” the first episode was really something of an introduction to humanity that we haven’t really thought about since Season 2 of The Walking Dead. Who among us that have loyally followed TWD since the beginning cannot remember Dale pleading for Randall’s life or the actual tears shed by Carol when walker Sophia emerged from the barn? After that, the new reality for Rick, Daryl, Maggie, and Glenn has become red-handled machetes, biting throats, and zombie heads in jars – and all of this has come at the hands of other human beings, not zombies.
What hasn’t been said so much is why Fear the Walking Dead must move slowly. The show must reacquaint us with OUR reality.
Fear is not The Walking Dead. It is something altogether different. It is, first, much of the world you and I know. If you tuned in hoping to see flesh-rotting walkers slowly trudging, one leg dragging down the street, well…the closest you came was drug addict Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) breaking out of the hospital in stolen old man clothes. You also likely missed all of the teasing that was done leading up to the premiere and probably wound up disappointed.
Fear the Walking Dead aims to tell about life before death has taken hold. The creators want us to meet and know these characters in an environment altogether different from the one to which Rick Grimes woke up. There is no bicycle girl.
What we encounter instead is a high school guidance counselor, Madison “Maddie” Clark (Kim Dickens), trying to find a way to cope with her drug addicted son, Nick, with the help of her live-in boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). We meet Maddie’s teenage daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam Carey), preoccupied with texting her boyfriend and dreaming of leaving for college. This is high school. This is a day in the life of the average, everyday family in Los Angeles.
Even the first four minutes, when Nick, while coming down off yet another grisly trip, sees visions of his lovely companion eating the faces of other human beings, could be chalked up to the dangerous side effects of drug addiction if we were not already intimately acquainted with the zombie apocalypse. The irony is that the show’s creators have built into the drug’s side effects, Clark’s inability to determine if what he saw was real or not. And who wouldn’t have the same reaction!? Terrible heroin trip or the world gone to hell?
The rest of the 90-minute pilot weaves through a slow build, with only references to the impending demise of the human race. A young Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos) comes to school with a blade declaring that there is safety in numbers. There have been incidents in five states, he explains. The creepy high school principal keeps referencing the number of students out with the flu. A road block encountered by Maddie and Travis erupts in gunfire, only to later be broadcast as an attempt by the police to take down a single man who is completely resistant to the many shots fired into his chest.
In the middle of these odd, but discreet occurrences, Travis, a high school English teacher, is walking his uninterested students through a lesson on survival. Using Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” he emphasizes, “London is trying to teach us how not to die…Nature,” he explains, “always wins.” It is foreboding at its most obvious.
In the show’s final moments, Nick seeks out his dealer, Calvin (Keith Powers), to try to find out if what he saw at the start was real, or merely a side effect of the goods sold to him. When a struggle for Calvin’s gun ensues, Nick shoots and kills Calvin, only to call Travis for help. When Travis and Maddie show up to collect Nick, and he explains to them that he has killed Calvin, we discover for the first time that a dead person has turned – is now the undead.
We only saw three zombies in the entire show. It wasn’t really about zombies at all, but about life. In order to know what these characters will lose, and possibly what they will gain, we have to first know what they have.
The Walking Dead has become what it had to – a show about survival among the most horrific of circumstances. As the few remaining human beings become their most primal, and many are at the worst, Rick and his crew are who they have to be to make it.
Fear the Walking Dead goes back to days gone by to remind us why we call it death…because we live.
The only similarities between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead are three dead bodies that can still get up and walk, and that all of this semi-normalcy is all going down when thousands of miles away a man named Rick Grimes is lying comatose in a hospital bed.
It isn’t The Walking Dead. And we wouldn’t want it to be.
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